If you love someone with a Chronic Illness, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, confused and hopeless. What can you possibly do to help them? It can seem impossible, especially when it’s a struggle for the unwell person to understand and comprehend what would help his/herself.
Last month I had a few friends join me to watch a special screening of a documentary called “Endo What?” After the movie two of them asked, “what can I say to, or do for someone who tells me, ‘I have Endo?’ How can I support them?” I confess, hesitated before I could reply because everyone is different and has individual needs.
Even when I look at myself, there is a stark contrast; what I need today is very different to what I needed two, four and even eight years ago. The only way to find out what someone needs is to listen to him or her. You may find that listening and believing what you hear is more than enough.
At the moment, I am pretty stable. I am managing the symptoms well and have reached an emotional state of acceptance. The most supportive act someone could do for me today is to listen to my rants. I want to create awareness and help others to empathize compassionately with the next ‘Endo Sister’ they meet. I want them to recognize the signs and symptoms, so if they know someone who is suffering, they won’t conclude that they’re just “faking it” and instead, encourage them to look into Endo themselves. If you know more than ten women, you know someone with Endo, and many remain suffering, in the dark, undiagnosed.
Alex in 2005 and early 2011 needed someone to listen to my experiencing and validate the pain, not just assume I was overreacting or faking it. In 2010, I couldn’t drive, cook or clean and those close to me quickly knew I needed help with those tasks.
Two to four years ago, Alex needed someone to listen and hug me as I cried. I needed people to hear about the pain and acknowledge the strength it took to get out of bed every day.
18- 24 months ago I needed someone to listen and see how hopeless and suicidal I was. Those who listened understood I was desperate. They knew I just needed to hear someone say, ‘I’m here for you, and we will keep trying different treatments until you get better.’
By truly listening to someone you can begin to understand what is at the core of the sorrow and frustration, and thus offer better support. This is called “active listening.” By focusing on your friend, avoiding distractions, being non-judgmental, reflecting and clarifying what you’ve heard them say and asking open questions are a few simple active listening skills. Active listening is the beginning of exercising empathy and compassion.
Sometimes we need a hug. Sometimes we need to grieve, cry and vent. Sometimes we need a good distraction, and sometimes we need to laugh. Other times we need practical help, for example, by being a taxi service, chef or offer room service. Often we can’t verbalize or even identify our needs are, but if you listen to us, you can help us reflect on our foggy and disjointed thoughts so we can start to understand ourselves.
I believe this applies to any Chronic Illness. I would give the same answer to someone who asked for advice on how to support someone with PCOS, Chronic Pain or Mental Illness. The only way you can begin to help someone genuinely and effectively is to listen first.
If you ask the right questions and pay attention to what the person is communicating you will probably find they’re been trying to tell you what they need for a very long time. Unfortunately, medication, pain and other symptoms can mince our words, which require a bit more attention and reflection to get to the bottom of what is being said.
You can’t just assume that because your friend Jane Doe is having one experience, your cousin, Jillian is having the same experience. We all have different symptoms, comforts, effective distraction methods and relievers. Our functionality is as different as the severity of symptoms. The one thing we all have in common is the need to be loved, connected, wanted, valued, cared for and supported.
So the next time you’re feeling confused or overwhelmed by a loved ones illness. Stop. Ask. Listen. Reflect. Repeat. If you genuinely hear what’s being said and clarify: you can’t really go wrong, and at the very least, they will feel valued and validated through listening.